Walking Distance - Freebird

Label: Sunnyside Records, 2018

Personnel – Caleb Curtis: alto saxophone, trumpet; Kenny Pexton: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Adam Coté: double bass, mellotron; Shawn Baltazor: drums, percussion. Featured guests - Jason Moran: piano, samples; Ben Rubin: bass, mellotron.


Walking Distance, a quartet of emerging New York artists, takes inspiration on Charlie Parker to create bop-derived originals with a contemporary twist. For their sophomore album, Freebird, they invite virtuosic pianist Jason Moran to join them in 6 of the 9 tracks. Alto saxophonist Caleb Curtis signs nine of the twelve tracks, two of them co-penned with bassist Adam Coté, who also delivers “Quasar Halo”, a disciplined chamber musing sweetened by docile unisons traced by clarinet, alto sax, and arco bass, and contrastingly bolstered by enthusiastic piano injections and relatively busy drum work.

Relying on an unbending form and structure, “William” starts the album off as a pure hard bop exercise, thriving with Curtis and Moran’s eruptive vocabularies while Coté and drummer Shawn Baltazor assure an indestructible bass-drums foundation. An engulfing melodic crescendo announces a short drum solo, renewing its vows before the reestablishment of the theme’s vibrant energy.

Tenor saxist Kenny Pexton devises “Pexterity” as a primordial bop fantasy, having thrilling horn lines crossing the frantic rhythm led by Coté’s sturdy pizzicato and followed by Balatazor’s swinging drum flow. “Donnalise” is a recognizable contrafact of the celebrated “Donna Lee”.

Producer Ben Rubin plays mellotron and additional bass on the absorbing “Simple Ghilnoorty”, whose rhythmic suggestions bring a mechanical electronic feel, for which stationary noir-toned chordal layers also contribute. Feeling fresh, these mechanisms deviate from the briskly swinging pulse of “Ghilnoorty Classic”, whose walking bass and static saxophone lines confer it a moderate flow; and “Bigment”, which starts as a classic march before swinging with strategic coordination. This particular piece was built on Bird's “Segment” and features Curtis on trumpet.

On “Lost & Found”, Baltazor starts coloring with loose hi-hat hits but later infuses snare-driven transition fills while enjoying the thumping bass rambles of Coté. Both support the bright melodicism of the reeds.

Even idolizing this swing-to-bop core, the band vouches for variety, which is reflected on “Feather Report” (an allusion to the revered band Weather Report), a fusion delight, magnificently enhanced by Moran’s keyboard dexterity and containing multiple shifting passages and interesting rhythmic deconstructions. What had started as a sort of desert song due to the freedom of its bass plucks and sliding moves, ended up in a triumphant jazz-rock stride. Another example of variability is “Cheat Sheet”, whose magnetic funky bass and melodic punctuation invite us to an adjacent swinging passage before returning to the initial boiling point.

Baltazor’s “Fly By” gains ground as a transformative stretch, starting with considerable bop affluence but morphing into a danceable, uptempo 3/4 ritual marked by keyboard samples, vigorous bass, Eastern-tinged lines, and ebullient drum attacks. A breath of fresh air in an album that, enjoying the comforts of hard bop, empowers up-to-dateness so it can be considered colorful, modern, as well as a personal statement.

Grade  B+

Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:

02 - Feather Report ► 04 - Simple Ghilnooorty ► 11 - Fly By